My mother turned seventy this past week. I flew my family out to surprise her in Colorado. As part of the surprise plot, my mother and my sister picked me (and only me) up from the airport, because my brother and I told her months ago he and I were going to celebrate with her. But she had no idea the whole family was going to be sprung on her. So while they were picking me up, my bro-in-law was picking up my wife and kids at another part of the airport. The conspiracy was on!
Mom, sister and I chit-chatted the 45 minutes back to the Denver suburb where they live, during which I intimated that I could use some lunch.
We settled on a place called Fuzzy’s Tacos, which I highly recommend as an economical and tasty choice if you’re in the Denver area. My mother was sitting at a booth in the rear of the restaurant with her back to the entrance. So, when my wife and three kids snuck in, she never saw them coming. Wife and kids strolled to the back and began to chorus, “Happy Birthday to You.”
The screaming that commenced was truly legendary. The people of Fuzzy’s didn’t know if it was Armageddon, a heart attack, or if Bob Barker had risen from the dead and just presented someone in the back of the restaurant with the chance to win a BRAND NEW CAR. In short, she lost her mind. She was shaking, she was quivering, she didn’t know how she was going to eat her meal. (But it was Fuzzy’s, so she managed to get it all down between the muttered exclamations and squeezes for her grandchildren).
My brother and his two children arrived the next day. Somehow, someway, my mother had purchased overalls for the entire group and my sister had booked us a spot at J.C. Penney for a photo shoot. Off we trundled for some down home, perhaps slightly Amish-looking, picture opportunities. All I needed was a pitchfork to complete the American Gothic look.
My mother has one of those birthdays that is sometimes on Thanksgiving, but this year it was the day before. I think that was good, because then we could focus just on her the day before a larger group (including my brother in law’s family) arrived for the meal at my sister’s place.
So, on her actual birthday, sister, brother and I went over to her house and did a mini-sibling camp. As I mentioned, it was supposed to be just us (the three kids) and my mother for a week, so she had planned a variety of activities (i.e., kitschy crafts) and she purchased matching tee-shirts to coordinate (i.e., embarrass us) in public. One of mine read, “I’m the oldest, so I make the rules.” Another said something about my “freakin'” awesome mother, which is a bit of a scandalous word choice for our 70-years-young matriarch. When pressed on this issue, she confessed she had contacted the tee-shirt company to see if she could get the offending term removed. In the end, the company couldn’t accommodate her and the shirts were too tempting to pass up and so we were “freakin'” tee-shirt wearing fools for one whole day.
Seventy years don’t leave you without a few wrinkles, a few scars, a few gray hairs. My mother has four children, and only three were with her for her birthday. This truth grabbed a hold of her a few times and wouldn’t let go. Children end up living their own lives, and you carry a little of their pain, their triumphs and their disappointments with you, no matter what you do. I know this already, and my oldest is only ten. But joy washed over her this week. Scars and wrinkles smoothed away, and even the saddest truth couldn’t hold her in its thrall for long.
During the evening of her special day, she read over a hundred cards my sister had asked people to send, and during the week itself, she took her grandkids over, one by one, to stay at her newly acquired apartment. We oohed and ahhed over the family photos crowding her walls, kind eyes and warm smiles, from many long dead, finding her and comforting her in this new place. A few months ago, you see, she moved from Virginia to be close to my sister and her brand spanking new son. (My mother would not approve of my using the term “spanking” in such a close reference to her precious grandson). But back to the photos…
She has carried these, her history, with her in the many moves she has made in her life, and to cover the walls with this pictorial history is to wrap a blanket of “self” around her, verifying her place in this world with the people she loves and has loved.
We celebrated Thanksgiving the day after her birthday, all of us gathered around tables pushed together in my sister’s basement. We played darts and my wife delivered a beat down to the competition. (She has been good since college; her aim is deadly). We thanked God for health and each other, and of course, took some photos. My mother kept snapping shots on her own, or pressing her camera into someone else’s hands saying, “hurry now, my battery’s about to die,” and then striking a pose.
One thing I forgot to mention, and it’s related. My mother is a quilter, and as I typed this all I out, I realized that the photos are just another way for her to stitch together the squares of her life. She is kept warm indeed.
All too soon, the birthday/Thanksgiving week was over. That’s the way these things go. A few days after our return to our respective homes, my mother let us know she is still basking in the glow of her memories. To be honest, I’m a little concerned to see the results of our Amish-inspired portraiture, but I know she will hang it in a place of honor on her wall. One more square. One more memory.